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Senate Panel Delves Into Harsh Interrogation Methods

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The fight over torture policy is often reported as a split between the CIA and the FBI. As the story goes, CIA interrogators advocated harsh techniques while FBI interrogators opposed them. Now an interrogator who was at the center of the battle says that storyline is wrong, and he testified before a congressional subcommittee yesterday. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO: In one, brief statement, former FBI agent Ali Soufan upended widely held beliefs about the torture debate.

Mr. ALI SOUFAN (Former FBI agent): It has been reported that it was a conflict during the interrogation between the FBI and CIA. I totally disagree with this assertion.

SHAPIRO: The FBI and the CIA were on the same page, Soufan says. He knows because he helped interrogate Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value detainee picked up after 9/11.

Mr. SOUFAN: Using intelligent interrogation methods, within the first hour, we gained important, actionable intelligence.

SHAPIRO: He says the people who pushed for harsh interrogations were private contractors who'd been hired by the CIA.

Mr. SOUFAN: The contractors had to keep requesting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods.

SHAPIRO: Soufan said the contractors had no experience with interrogations or with terrorism. They reportedly came from a school that trained American service members how to resist torture. Committee chairman Sheldon Whitehouse said, this changes our understanding of the torture story.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island; Subcommittee Chairman): We were told we couldn't second-guess the brave CIA officers who did this. And now we hear that the program was led by private contractors with a profit motive and no real interrogation experience.

SHAPIRO: This was not a typical congressional hearing. Ali Soufan has gone undercover in al-Qaida before. He has testified against terrorists in court. And even though he's retired now, there are death threats against him. So instead of sitting at the witness tableh where news cameras could film him, he spoke from behind curtains in a corner of the room. Soufan called the contractors' abusive interrogation methods ineffective, unreliable and slow.

Mr. SOUFAN: Waiting 180 hours as part of a sleep deprivation stage is time we cannot afford to waste in a ticking bomb scenario.

SHAPIRO: President Bush has said that harsh interrogations were effective. This is from a speech he gave in 2006.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives, but he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation. And so the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.

SHAPIRO: Senator Whitehouse asked Soufan whether President Bush's description accurately reflects what happened at the CIA prison.

Mr. SOUFAN: The president, my own personal opinion here, based on my recollection, he was told, probably, half-truth.

SEN. WHITEHOUSE: And repeated a half-truth obviously. His statement as, as presented, does not conform with what you know to be the case from your experience on hand.

Mr. SOUFAN: Yes, sir.

SHAPIRO: But Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, this is not the whole story.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Mr. Chairman, I think there is some information out there that shows that enhanced interrogation techniques did yield good information, and I would like that to be part of this inquiry if we're going to have it.

SHAPIRO: Another witness at the hearing used to be a top State Department lawyer. Philip Zelikow called the treatment of detainees a collective failure.

Mr. PHILIP ZELIKOW (Former State Department Lawyer): The U.S. government over the past seven years adopted an unprecedented program in American history of coolly calculated, dehumanizing abuse and physical torment to extract information. This was a mistake - perhaps a disastrous one.

SHAPIRO: In 2005, Zelikow wrote a memo arguing against the Justice Department's legal reasoning on harsh interrogations. He says the White House tried to have that memo destroyed. Yesterday, Zelikow revealed that the State Department has found a copy, and it is now under review to be declassified.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.

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